A solar controversy highlights the project permit process

A controversy has emerged at California’s state energy regulator over whether or not it should have the authority to issue permits for photovoltaic power plants: solar projects that use panels. Wednesday, the California Energy Commission is scheduled to consider a developer’s request that the CEC should have the authority to issue a permit for a solar power plant in the Mojave Desert.

Solar Trust of America is asking the commission to review and permit its Ridgecrest Solar Power Project even though, historically, the commission doesn’t get involved in projects that use PV technology. Solar Trust contends that state law allows the commission to take on PV projects if the project developers request it. Solar Trust initially proposed to use solar thermal technology (instead of panels) for the 250 MW project, but it indicated a few months ago that it wanted to use solar panels instead. The commission’s staff disagrees with Solar Trust’s interpretation of the state law. The commission oversees thermal power plants that are 50 MW or larger.

Solar thermal technology generally makes use of mirrors to direct the sunlight on fluid-containing pipes or a boiler to produce steam, which is then used to run a turbine to produce electricity. Solar panels use semiconductors such as silicon to convert sunlight into electricity.

Why you should pay attention

There are some key reasons why you should care about the debate at the commission. Although the Solar Trust case only deals with one project, it could lead to more requests from developers to have the commission oversee PV power plants. That could, in effect, strip counties and cities of the ability to have the final say on PV power projects (if a project is on federal land, then the federal government is in charge). Some environmental groups also argue that Solar Trust’s action amounts to picking and choosing which government agency it believes will issue permits with the least hassles.

A solar power plant often requires a lot of land, sometimes a lot of water (for equipment cleaning and power generation), and can sometimes come at the expense of wildlife protection. So, the process of planning and permitting solar projects is an important consideration for all Californians, especially given the growing number of large solar power projects under development.

Are the steps of getting a state permit more or less onerous? That is open to debate. A county or city could offer a shorter and less expensive process, especially if it really wants the project for job creation and tax revenues. On the other hand, dealing with local politics isn’t guaranteed to be easier, and the permitting process can drag on if the local government lacks the experience or rules to shepherd a project along.

First Solar (s FSLR) and SunPower (s SPWRA) are both developing PV power plants in San Luis Obispo County, Calif., and they recently signed a pact with three environmental organizations to spend money on buying more land for wildlife protection. First Solar has been working on the 550 MW Topaz Solar project since it bought it from OptiSolar in 2009. It received a land use permit from the county in July this year and is waiting for a final construction permit before it can start building Topaz, said John McKenzie, the county’s senior planner. SunPower’s 250 MW California Valley Solar Ranch project has followed a similar time line.

Project in limbo

Solar Trust actually wanted to abandon the Ridgecrest project in January this year, after realizing the commission wasn’t likely to approve the project mainly because of its impact on the Mojave ground squirrel. The company then changed its mind about ditching the project and said it would reduce the generation size of the project and use solar panels, which it said also will help reduce the need for grading and water. Solar Trust hasn’t filed the paperwork to formally declare it would use solar panels, but the company recently said it would switch from solar thermal to PV if it makes economic sense.

In a hearing on the issue last month, Solar Trust officials laid out their legal argument on why the commission can take on the Ridgecrest as a PV project, but they didn’t articulate why they would want that. The project as proposed would be on land managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management. The project already was under review by the BLM and commission when it was proposed to use solar thermal, and switching to PV means BLM would be the only final authority for the project. Solar Trust’s officials aren’t available to comment Tuesday.

Photos courtesy of Solar Millennium and Oregon Department of Transportation